Alan Brinkley: Bonus March and Occupy Wall Street

Roundup: Historians' Take

Alan Brinkley, a history professor at Columbia University, is the author of “Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin & the Great Depression.” His most recent book is “The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century.”

Protests are usually messy, noisy and often confused. But they have produced some of the most important changes in American history — the Sons of Liberty, the abolitionists, the populists, the labor movements, the civil rights movements, the anti-war movements and many others. All were first attacked as rabble and mob rule. But our democracy would be far more fragile without them — seldom more so than during economic crises.

The Occupy Wall Street protests are the product of the 2008 economic crisis and the growing anger toward the financial world. Whether this new movement will survive, no one knows — but it is a continuation of a long-standing tradition.

Three years after the beginning of the 2008 economic crisis, protesters have begun to march in cities across the nation demanding efforts to reduce inequality and to support the needs of the thousands of Americans out of work. Three years after the beginning of the Great Depression, frustrated, unemployed Americans — many of them veterans of earlier local protests — began to organize national protests to help desperate, unemployed people. There are many differences between these two movements — but also significant similarities.

More than 40,000 veterans, many of them homeless, gathered in Washington to persuade Congress to distribute the bonus. A sympathetic Congress passed the bill; President Herbert Hoover vetoed it. Most of the veterans left the city soon after — but several thousand remained. Some lived in empty government buildings near the Capitol, others in a makeshift shantytown just across the Anacostia River. They stayed through the summer, serving as a constant embarrassment to the president — who refused to see them. Security around the White House intensified, picketing was banned, streets closed off....

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